Over the course of four previous releases, the New York duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, aka The Books, have mapped out their own distinctive territory on the fringes where pop meets the experimental avant-garde, creating music that incorporates elements of folk and electronica, along with a wide range of sampled sounds, particularly speech, derived from recordings sourced largely from charity shops.
It's taken them into some unusual areas – they were commissioned to compose music for a new elevator in the French Ministry of Culture, and more recently, Zammuto scored a documentary feature about Biosphere 2, the huge greenhouse in the Arizona desert whose occupying "Biospherians" turned out to be members of a new-age personality cult, swiftly degenerating into opposing factions. As such, it must have been the perfect preparation for The Way Out, throughout which are scattered found-sound fragments of meditation and self-help tapes edited (one hopes) for witty impact.
The "Group Autogenics" pieces that bookend the album, for instance, feature typically soothing voices instructing us to "listen in this pattern until we have reached the infinite everything", over a gentle stubble of discreet percussion and damped guitar harmonics. The similarly reassuring monologue of "Chain of Missing Links", meanwhile, appears to conclude with the sly suggestion that the supposedly unused 95% of one's brain "is available for food". Which might not sound so reasonable were the accompanying slow swells of organ and sequenced-noise rhythms not so persuasively apt. Even when The Books themselves sing, as on the non-sequitur folk-song "Free Translator" and faux-Americana of "We Bought the Flood", such is the calm manner of their vocal that it seems to hide among all the hypnotherapy mumbo-jumbo.
In strictly musical terms, The Books deal mostly in calm, undemonstrative motifs in a repetitive, pop-minimalist style – pulsing waves of organ, keening feedback, wind noise and synth tones, decorated with the occasional plaintive horn, guitar figure or tuned percussion part. The more complex pieces recall the montages of Frank Zappa or Squarepusher. "I Didn't Know That" uses a slick hi-hat and conga groove as the foundation for a staccato vocal cut-up from whose fragmentary bricolage surface exclamations of surprise and wonder – heaven only knows how many hours they spent editing it together – while the gorgeous "Beautiful People" blends reversed vocal harmonies and sampled brass into a genuinely moving, epiphanic backdrop to the duo's mathematical musings.
For some, The Books are too clever for their own good; and certainly, they display little inclination to compromise their obvious intelligence for popularity. But with The Way Out, they've tapped into a vein of playful, surrealist humour that makes their experimental approach and painstaking methodology so much more engaging than if they were simply out to impress. It may be the album that finally tips them into something close to the mainstream.
DOWNLOAD THIS Group Autogenics 1; I Didn't Know That; Beautiful People; Chain of Missing Links; Free Translator